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The moral urgency of Memorial Day

A rising generation must be taught its meaning


A soldier places flags in front of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on May 25. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik

The moral urgency of Memorial Day
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Today is Memorial Day, the day when we remember military personnel who lost their lives while defending our country.

Memorial Day is about the real cost of war, and wars have both shaped our history and secured our freedoms. Some of today’s parents, however, have concerns about talking with children about war, particularly in an era of lawless violence graphically reported on television news. Combine that with the strangely casual attitude our society has toward digitized killing in video games. Should we talk about war and military service with our children? The answer is “yes” and Memorial Day is a valuable place to start.

Memorial Day helps us rightly frame and honor those who have served us in harm’s way. It is important that we model for our children the right nomenclature for our warriors. Some people are called and uniquely equipped for public service in the armed forces. Thus our military personnel are “guardians,” “defenders,” and “protectors.” The same holds true for law enforcement. We should not mock our warriors as ‘jarheads’ nor demean our police with pejorative labels. We are talking about people who daily put themselves at risk, and on Memorial Day we are specifically honoring those who died protecting and defending something. That “something” is our lives, our livelihoods, and our way of life in America. We should make sure our children know this truth.

A second thing to talk about on Memorial Day is your own family story. In the case of my own family, there is no spectacularly heroic military story to tell, but there is a theme of faithful service. In each of the last great wars, when there was a call to service, the men of my family answered the call. My grandfathers answered the call during World War II, with one serving in a hospital in India with the Army Air Forces and another working in Navy shipyards in San Diego. My father, like many of the men of his generation, was drafted and reported for duty during the Vietnam War. I had an uncle who was wounded in Vietnam and a brother-in-law who served in the Marine Corps.

The Bible teaches that “there is no greater love than that a man lay down his life for his friend.”

Thankfully, our family has not experienced battle losses, like so many surviving families, but it is nonetheless important for our children to know that military service was a part of our family history. Even if they did not pay the ultimate price, people in the armed forces are always in danger of being placed in harm’s way, either in training or in war. Thus, they represent an important truth from the Bible—self-sacrifice. The Bible teaches that “there is no greater love than that a man lay down his life for his friend.” The warriors who served under Gen. Washington, or as part of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, or more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, were prepared to lay down their lives.

The sacrifice by those who serve in our armed forces is a small glimmer pointing us to how love makes us willing to give everything to protect those we love and have the greatest sacrifice of all, that of Jesus. Christ’s death on the cross is the archetype of selfless sacrifice to save others, it is the ultimate good that other sacrifices point to. These are lessons that we should draw to the attention of our children.

Finally, every generation has those left behind on Memorial Day, for whom the observance is particularly painful as they recall a sibling, a parent, a child, or a comrade that they lost on a foreign battlefield. Memorial Day provides a vivid reminder for Christians to pray for the survivors. We must pray for peace and healing. Memorial Day may serve as a call to your church to seek ways to serve surviving veterans and surviving families, who bear the long-term costs of that loss.

Memorial Day symbolizes something very important for our nation, and that is the human cost of protecting and defending our people. It is entirely right for us to emphasize to our youth a sense of thanksgiving for those who have given their lives in military service as well as to pray and look for opportunities for support to those who survive the fallen.


Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.


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